Fit for purpose
Post Offices. It is easy to conclude that they’re not what they were. A few decades ago in my local big town, the main post office was housed in a grandiose and spacious former hotel building in the town’s most elegant street. From there it moved to a cramped but serviceable High Street location with shelves for stationery and similar goods at the front, and Post Office counters at the back. From there it has migrated to part of the upper floor in the town’s branch of W H Smith. It’s all rather sad, and reflects the Post Office’s loss of its former grip on our lives.
Back in the 1930s and 1940s, on the other hand, the Post Office was very much at the centre of things, and if an important new Post Office was built, it was likely to be a building of some consequence, probably solid-looking and traditional in appearance, like this example in Shaftesbury. With its stone walls, big gables, mullioned windows, and Tudor-style doorway, it wouldn’t look out of place in a Cotswold town, and it fits in well here too, turning the street corner with some style. It all adds up to the kind of Tudor revival style that, along with neo-Georgian, was popular for Post Offices in the interwar years. This one was built, so a plaque on the wall tells us, in 1946, so it’s very much harking back to the time before World War II. This was still a time when a lot of thought went into the design and functioning of Post Offices. Julian Stray, in his useful Shire book, Post Offices, quotes Lord Gerald Wellesley writing in the Architectural Review, around this period, telling his readers what a Post Office should be like:
A Post Office must be in a prominent position. It should look dignified and permanent, and should, as far as possible, harmonize with its surroundings…the public office, which should, of course, be of a size adequate to the number frequenting it, should, in the larger instances, have doors giving on to the streets at both ends…must be very well lit, and this may mean windows on the ground floor which ideally speaking, are disproportionately large compared with those in the upstairs offices. A clock and prominently displayed letter-box are also features of a Post Office front.
The Shaftesbury office ticks nearly all of Wellesley’s boxes. It is on the site of the Angel Inn, which was the home of the town’s first postmaster in the 1660s. Early post offices were often in inns, which could easily accommodate horses and carts delivering mail. Today this Post Office today is kitted out with a red oval sign and one of those brown metal built-in post boxes, helpfully labelled “POSTING BOX” in elegant capital letters. High on the wall, more capitals tell us that this was both a Post Office and Savings Bank. Ah, of course. Banks. It is easy to conclude that they’re not what they were…